Pitchfork, the pretentious and overbearing music criticism site I can’t let go of my love for, just released their “Top 200 Albums of The Decade” list (and praise the lord, it’s one page not 20 to constantly click through just to get to a specific number!). Beyond the ridiculousness of the decade coming to a close, my first feeling was of deep, deep sympathy for the team that had to choose the 200 best albums from the best decade of music ever (hot take?), then thoughtful consideration of what my list would be. Not having a large team of staff writers and (probably unpaid) interns to write about 200 albums, I’ve decided to write about my favorite 10 albums of the last 10 years. It’s rather stunning the amount of life-changing, heartbreaking, and world-shaking music that has been released this decade, but I did my best to choose the 10 I think really represent the best this decade has to offer musically, culturally, and intellectually. Without any further ado:
Kolya Shields’ Top 10 Albums of the 2010s
10. LEGACY! LEGACY! — Jamila Woods, 2019
The 2nd newest album on the list, poet and singer-songwriter Jamila Woods paves a new path for modern R&B on her sophomore work, LEGACY! LEGACY!. Each song is named after an important people of color in History, from James Baldwin to Frieda Kahlo to Etta James, and deals with, well, their legacy and the spectre of racism in America. Touching on police violence, white fear, gentrification, love, sex, and more with dense, literary writing and a buttery voice, this album’s influence has yet to be seen in the music world due to it’s recent release, but suggests a complex, important, and beautiful future for its genre. While it’s not higher on the list because of it’s incalculable cultural impact, LEGACY! LEGACY! Could quite easily become the hallmark of a new generation of songwriters much the same way Frank Ocean (as you’ll see later on the list) did for R&B and Rap in the 2010s. This album is incredible because it reminds you of the importance of music, the inescapable pull and push of challenging lyrics and smooth hooks, the pain of pointless violence and the wondrous brilliance of artists.
9. Pop 2 — Charli XCX, 2017
This is the future of Pop Music. Charli XCX’s 4th mixtape, Pop 2, sounded like nothing else in even vaguely popular music. The same artist who released the saccharine banger “Boom Clap” suddenly released the greatest autotune opus since “Runaway”, “Track 10”. This album is overloaded with features, but energetic, exciting, necessary features that reimagine what a banger can sound like. Relentlessly driving, thematically complex, futuristic with a shiny robotic sheen, Charli XCX’s album brings in talented producers like SOPHIE and A.G. Cook from PC Music (A record label from London obsessed with exaggerated and extravagant electronic pop music) to predict a technologically seductive future filling with partying, excess, drinking, sex, gender, raves, and robots with feelings too.
8. Norman Fucking Rockwell — Lana Del Rey, 2019
Vindication! The Lana Del Rey fans — such as I — that have been saying she’s talented for the last 5+ years are finally proven correct by her most recent, dazzling, and well written album, that reveals her as the millennial muse of the 2010s. Filled with gorgeous Jack Antonoff production, including booming drums, twinkling synths, and climactic guitar noodling, this is the best and most interesting sounding traditionally pop album of 2019, but what sets it apart is the writing. Lana Del Rey has leapt into position as her generation’s Joni Mitchell, writing carefully and beautifully about love, existential angst, and modern culture. She may not be Mitchell yet, but she’s the closest we have right now, and I couldn’t be more excited to see what she does next. The prevailing feeling of the decade is crumbling, futuristic decay, of our apocalypse being streamed in 4K and live-tweeted, of even our downfall being commodified, and Del Rey will croon elemental truths about the messed up place we live as we all go down in pixelated flames, singing “The culture is lit and I had a ball / I guess that I’m burned out after all”.
7. JEFFERY — Young Thug, 2016
Young Thug revolutionized Rap music. He’s an incomparable talent, a fashion savant, and spawned legions of copycats that rule the charts. JEFFERY is his best album, and exemplifies his relentless innovation. Pictured in a ruffled sky blue and white dress, he disregarded all traditional hip hop gender roles while throwing caution to the wind and recording the definitive melodic rap album. His writing is at turns hilarious, entertaining, meaningful, and important. One second he’s rhyming Feng Shui with AK, and the next he’s warbling about how he’s “scared to trust you… scared you’ll trick me,” with his voice spirialing higher and higher as he implores the listener to earn his love. The production on this album is exceptional, with thundering 808s and shiny synths a perfect backdrop for his elastic voice, and never two songs that sound alike. Bartier 6 and JEFFERY perfected the genre that Gunna, Lil Baby, and more chart-toppers record in today, at a much lower skill level than Thug. Still releasing some of the best music of his time with his last album So Much Fun, Thug will continue to inspire a new generation of rappers while breaking all of the rules, and convincing us that the most fun rap album of the 2010s is just the highpoint of the first part of his career.
6. Visions — Grimes, 2012
Grimes has been making the most consistently interesting and exciting electropop music of the past decade while swimming through oceans of controversy, whether relating to her tendency to create songs entirely in Garageband or her relationship with Elon Musk. Visions is her definitive album, and an incredible balance of popular appeal and critical acclaim that brings innovative electronic music to more ears than ever. Chiming synths and filthy bass spin around her haunting lyrics about abuse, trauma, and recovery, singing “I will wait forever, always looking straight / Thinking, counting, all the hours you wait”, as she recalls, relieves, and processes her pain from her assault. She questions whether she can engage in a relationship after being betrayed and hurt so badly by a man that she “see[s]… on a dark night” whenever she walks alone, on one of the best songs of the decade. This album lead a wave of vitally important feminist electronic music that swept into the 2010s that are equally complex, skilled, and necessary.
5. Lemonade — Beyoncé, 2016
Lemonade isn’t Beyoncé’s prettiest album, her catchiest, or her most accessible, but to hell with forcing women to be “presentable”, especially when Beyoncé is so inspiring smashing fire hydrants to pieces in Hold Up, and when Lemonade is so incredibly good. A radical exploration of black female rage, love, and grief, this album begins with personal betrayal and ends with an attack on systematic racism, a direct celebration of African-American culture, and a unification of black women in America. Beyoncé seems to take on genres to simply prove she can do them, from the horn-filled country drawl of “Daddy Lessons” to the indie rock sludge of “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, then turns them into jaw-dropping bangers. While she might use traditionally white and male themes of violence, vengeance, and capitalism, these questions wouldn’t even begin to materialize if Beyoncé wasn’t the greatest entertainer of her time, a careful songwriter, and a wildly successful black women. When the greatest criticisms you can level are at such a theoretical and intellectual level, it becomes obvious that this is the work of a once in a culture artist at the top of their game releasing the best music of their career, and a stunning validation of black women’s rightful rage.
4. Bloom — Beach House, 2012
This is the best written, performed, and arranged piece of dream pop released since the Cocteau Twins’ heyday. Songs flow around you, lifting you up on a sweeping synth line and ebbing in and out with the enigmatic lyrics of Victoria Legrand and the echoing guitar riffs of Alex Scully. No band is able to perfect and alter their musical style better than Beach House. They are the most consistently solid band of the decade. Every album alters their formula slightly and adds fascinating experimentation, but Bloom was a monumental step forwards. The instrumentals of this album feel alive, with a live drummer and booming rhythms, pairing with the most lived-in and personal lyrics Legrand has ever written. The twirling crescendos of highlight “Myth” intertwine with spare, cyclical lyrics about illusion and memory, “Our father won’t come home / ’Cause he is seeing double”, and highlight the power of this album. While it may have spawned the least amount of successfully copycats because of the pure challenge of creating complex and innovative dream pop, it stands alone as a stunning example of the perfect marriage of writing, vocals, and instrumentation combining to create a mood.
3. channel ORANGE — Frank Ocean, 2012
The song of the decade is “Pyramids”. Encompassing an incredible amount of styles, from rock to EDM to rap to R&B, this song and album proved Frank Ocean was here to stay. While it’s arguable Blonde is a better album, and that it cemented his place as the greatest R&B artists of our time, channel Orange introduced us to savant Frank Ocean and is the highpoint of the R&B revival of the 2010s. Moving from lo-fi collective hip hop to purposeful beats and professional production while retaining his precise, personal writing, this album marks a careful transition to the mainstream that is so often unsuccessful for Soundcloud artists like Ocean. His wide vocal range, unique instrumentation, and idiosyncratic lyrics, “Got a beach house I could sell you in Idaho”, for one, mark Frank Ocean as a singular artist releasing stirring music that sounds like no one else. Challenging norms within hip hop, society, music traditions, and typical album releases, Ocean ushered in a new age of intensely introspective and vital songwriting and production.
2. Modern Vampires of the City — Vampire Weekend, 2013
No album from this decade comes close to the pure beauty of Modern Vampires of the City. Rostam’s synths are at turns baroque, quaint, dirty, and worldly, but always surprising and pretty. The rhythms in this album drive the propulsive pop songs forward or steady a slow burning ballad. Ezra Koenig’s writing is the best of the decade, and his elastic voice has never sounded as bright, emotive, and resonant. This album is dense, a carefully crafted set of pop songs that overflow with heavy literary allusion as well as historical references, and a strong sense of wistful sadness pervades the entire project. That being sad, my goodness this is a gorgeous album. I say “gorgeous” about a lot of music, but nothing comes close to the clean, cohesive, beautiful package that is Vampire Weekend’s 3rd project, and the best pop album of the 2000s (yeah, I said it). My favorite song of all time, Hannah Hunt, is a clear standout that starts slow, “crawling vines and weeping willow…from Providence to Phoenix”, with woody drums and warbling synths, sounding like a steel drum played underwater, then explodes into Koenig’s most emotional vocal performance to date, screaming out the chorus he had just whispered earlier on in the song, “If I can’t trust you then damn it, Hannah / There’s no future, there’s no answer”, as the drums and piano bloom out in the background. This album is the pinnacle of indie songwriting in the 21st century, and as such is filled with “The New York Times,” existential grief, and “Mechanicsburg, Anchorage, and Dar es Salaam”, representing the hopes and fears of millenials everywhere and ushering in the future of quote en quote intellectual pop music.
1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — Kanye West, 2010
How fitting that Kanye predicted so much of this mess of a decade with his 2010 magnus opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (MBDTF), and his subsequent breakdown, cataloged with increasingly wild and exceptional music released over the next 10 years that still never came close to the glory Kanye’s first of the decade, and the best album of that decade. Much has been said about the cultural context of this album, it’s importance in relation to Kanye career and future, after the whole VMAs fiasco, the (honestly iconic) Katrina PR disaster, and the rapper’s general history of being an idiot while releasing some of the best rap music of all time, so I’ll mostly stick to the music in this examination of MBDTF. This is the singularly most influential album of the 2010s. Kanye redefined hip hop with 808s & Heartbreak, then blew it wide open with MBDTF, illustrating the power of maximalist music done with precision. Every sample, beat, flow, and line is chosen carefully, with purpose, to tell the story of the greatest asshat of our generation’s fall from grace and transcendence beyond the mortal world. In an album filled with hedonism, arrogance, self-realization, love, sex, and rock and roll, Kanye does a masterful job of balancing his persona from a sex-crazed devil on “Monster” to a painfully self-aware jerk on “Runaway” to a suicidal egotist on “Power”. This is the story of a true god, a god whose flaws are just as magnified as their stratospheric talents. The sounds on this album are mind-blowing: gospel choruses, prog rock samples, and the greatest auto tune ramble of the decade. The piano and guitar lines on this album are worth a multi-page essay by themselves just based on the extraordinary chord changes and progressions that align with the storyline of the particular song. Kanye went pop on this album, but he also went rock, and classic hip hop, and even indie folk (thanks, Justin Vernon), showing us he’s the best genre melder in a decade full of genre smudging to fit on a multitude of Spotify playlists. The social commentary is at times hilarious, at times cutting, and at times simply that unique Kanye brand of insanity, but still remains intelligent and necessary. The number of jaw-dropping, brain-twisting, and radically creative moments on this album is ridiculous. Simply put, this is the most extravagant, most important, most Kanye, and most 2010s album of the decade.
Wow. That was very hard to do. I can’t believe people are doing this for 200 albums. This is just one page of my planning; I can’t imagine the number of reams of paper that Pitchfork used.
What I’ve taken away from this is the fact that this decade was revolutionary in music. The amount of women, people of color, and queer people that are getting critical and commercial success is leagues past where we were even just in the early 2000s. There’s still more work to do, but this is dope. Rap is taking over critical platforms as well as the charts, a vital change in the industry, and pop is getting more of its due as well. Honestly, music is just dope! I might end up doing a top 10 or 20 (if I’m feeling particularly industrious) songs of the decade list as well, make sure to keep a look out for that. To finish up, I’m going to list an Honorable Mentions list, with short explanations, because it really hurt to cut some of these from the top 10 list.
4 and Beyoncé — Beyoncé: I thought Lemonade was more culturally important, but these are my personal favorites from her (Probably 4 as my absolute favorite, “Countdown” is her best song period, asides from maybe “Formation”)
House of Balloons EP — The Weeknd: You wouldn’t be wrong to say this album launched modern R&B, and I love my druggy bangers.
EMOTION — Carly Rae Jepsen: Modern pop’s queen, us gays’ queen, anyone with taste’s queen!
CTRL — SZA: Maybe the best R&B debut (ok sure she had an album before, but this is her real debut) since Lauryn Hill? Love this album.
LP1 — FKA Twigs: Relentlessly innovative artist, really wild and gorgeous album.
Days are Gone — HAIM: There’re the new Fleetwood Mac, straight up, but maybe more experimental?
Room 25 — Noname: Dear god “Ace” is an incredible song, and she’s an exceptional writer.
Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides — SOPHIE: One of the most talented producers out there, and filled with BANGERS. “Immaterial” is a clear standout.
Wildheart — Miguel: Another candidate for the leader of the R&B revival, and this album is him at his glorious, sultry, peak.
The ArchAndroid — Janelle Monáe: What a performer, and this album was so unexpected, pretty, and unique.
(Extra bonus #11:)
Contra — Vampire Weekend: Couldn’t resist. This has their best instrumentals, and one of my favorite songs, “Horchata”, and “Run” is incredible too. A specifically stunning sound on this one, even if the writing is better on Modern Vampires of the City.